Colorful Legacies

Kevin Lewis

April 11, 2023

The Cumulative Effects of Colorism: Race, Wealth, and Skin Tone
Alexander Adames
Social Forces, forthcoming


Researchers have long documented a persistent Black–White gap in wealth. These studies, however, often treat race as a discrete category, eluding its socially constructed nature. As a result, these studies assume that the “effect of race” is consistent across all individuals racialized as Black. Studies that make this assumption potentially obscure heterogeneity in the size of the Black–White wealth gap. Research on skin color stratification suggests that it is possible that the Black–White wealth gap varies by the extent to which a racial subgroup is deemed to fit the broader racial umbrella. In turn, I adopt a more complex operationalization of race that is based on both racial and skin tone appraisals. Drawing on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, I find that the Black–White wealth gap does vary by the Black skin tone subgroup. Generally, the Black–White gap in assets is smallest when focusing on lighter-skin Black people and largest when focusing on darker-skin Black people. These differences are not only the result of initial disadvantage but also cumulative disadvantage in the rate of wealth accumulation. Lastly, the findings suggest that the Black–White wealth gaps grow at a faster rate than the skin tone wealth gaps. I found that differences were robust to adjustments for parental socioeconomic status, childhood background, and interviewer characteristics. I conclude by discussing the theoretical implications for our understanding of the mechanisms undergirding Black–White disparities in wealth attainment.

Neighborhood Racial and Economic Composition Predicts Incidence of Various Emergency Service Responses
Karl Vachuska
Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, March 2023 


Sociological research has investigated neighborhood inequality across various consequential events. Crime and violence continue to be dominant phenomena examined. Less sociological attention has been given to other types of adverse incidents involving emergency services responses. In this article, the author draws on a unique data set on medical emergencies, fires, traffic collisions, gas leaks, carbon monoxide leaks, and hazardous incidents from more than 600 local first-responder agencies across the United States to examine neighborhood inequalities in prevalence. The author finds that across nearly all outcomes, neighborhood proportion Black is a dominant predictor of incidence that persists net of a battery of controls. The author additionally finds socioeconomic disparities across a few of these outcomes, including medical emergencies, fires, and traffic collisions. The author concludes by broadly encouraging more sociological research on these understudied events.

The Gendered Impacts of Perceived Skin Tone: Evidence from African-American Siblings in 1870–1940
Ran Abramitzky et al.
NBER Working Paper, March 2023 


We study differences in economic outcomes by perceived skin tone among African Americans using full-count U.S. decennial census data from the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Comparing children coded as “Black” or “Mulatto” by census enumerators and linking these children across population censuses, we first document large gaps in educational attainment and income among African Americans with darker and lighter perceived skin tones. To disentangle the drivers of these gaps, we identify all 36,329 families in which enumerators assigned same-gender siblings different Black/Mulatto classifications. Relative to sisters coded as Mulatto, sisters coded as Black had lower educational attainment, were less likely to marry, and had lower-earning, less-educated husbands. These patterns are consistent with more severe contemporaneous discrimination against African-American women with darker perceived skin tones. In contrast, we find similar educational attainment, marital outcomes, and incomes among differently-classified brothers. Men perceived as African Americans of any skin tone faced similar contemporaneous discrimination, consistent with the “one-drop” racial classification rule that grouped together individuals with any known Black ancestry. Lower incomes for African-American men perceived as having darker skin tone in the general population were driven by differences in opportunities and resources that varied across families, likely reflecting the impacts of historical or family-level discrimination

Whitelashing: Black Politicians, Taxes, and Violence
Trevon Logan
Journal of Economic History, forthcoming 


This paper provides the first evidence of the effect of tax policy on violent attacks against Black politicians. I find a positive effect of local tax revenue on subsequent violence against Black politicians. A dollar increase in per capita county taxes in 1870 increased the likelihood of a violent attack by more than 25 percent. The result is robust to controls for numerous economic, historical, and political factors. I also find counties where Black officeholders were attacked have the largest tax reversions. This provides the first quantitative evidence that Reconstruction political violence was specifically related to Black political efficacy.

From Pluribus to Unum? The Civil War and Imagined Sovereignty in Nineteenth-Century America
Melissa Lee, Nan Zhang & Tilmann Herchenröder
American Political Science Review, forthcoming 


Contestation over the structure and location of final sovereign authority -- the right to make and enforce binding rules -- occupies a central role in political development. Historically, war often settled these debates and institutionalized the victor’s vision of sovereignty. Yet sovereign authority requires more than institutions; it ultimately rests on the recognition of the governed. How does war shape imagined sovereignty? We explore the effect of warfare in the United States, where the debate over two competing visions of sovereignty erupted into the American Civil War. We exploit the grammatical shift in the “United States” from a plural to a singular noun as a measure of imagined sovereignty, drawing upon two large textual corpuses: newspapers (1800–99) and congressional speeches (1851–99). We demonstrate that war shapes imagined sovereignty, but for the North only. Our results further suggest that Northern Republicans played an important role as ideational entrepreneurs in bringing about this shift.

Contract, Duration and Discrimination
Oren Bar-Gill & Tamar Kricheli‐Katz
Harvard Working Paper, February 2023 


Racial residential segregation is a crucial aspect of the persisting racial inequality in the United States. We reexamine this enduring problem from a novel perspective, exposing the relationship between segregation and contract duration. In the housing context, the main contract duration decision involves the choice between buying (long duration) and renting (short duration). And this choice can affect, and be affected by, the racial composition of a neighborhood. If, because of discriminatory misperceptions based on mistaken stereotypes or discriminatory preferences, moving into a racially diverse neighborhood is perceived by some white residents to be a riskier or otherwise less preferred alternative, then (i) a white person moving into such a diverse neighborhood would be more likely to rent than buy; and (ii) a white person who is intent on buying, would be likely to choose a less diverse, predominantly white neighborhood. To empirically explore the relationship between contract duration and segregation, we apply two methodological approaches: First, we analyze rich survey data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which cover 8,984 individuals who were surveyed annually over a period of 17 years, including about their housing decisions. Second, we run online, incentivized trust-game experiments (N=763 across all experiments), where we study the relationship between duration choices and partner choices. Our findings suggest that short-duration, rental contracts may help reduce discriminatory outcomes. The shorter duration and the lower perceived risk of renting may encourage white residents to move into more diverse neighborhoods. And renting in a more diverse neighborhood may help dispel discriminatory misperceptions that are based on mistaken stereotypes or even eradicate discriminatory preferences, such that when the time comes to buy a house (long-duration contract) the search will include more diverse neighborhoods. If short-duration, rental contracts can be more conducive to racial integration, this provides a reason to soften the strong policy preference for homeownership. We also briefly explore the relationship between contract duration and other contractual design choices beyond the housing context.


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